Lincoln’s Battle With His Cabinet Abraham Lincoln is regarded by many historians as the greatest president ever to stand at America’s helm. This reputation is extremely well deserved, as Lincoln was able to preserve the Union and gain victory in the civil war, despite his fighting an uphill battle against his own presidential cabinet. Had he not been struggling against this divided government, President Lincoln could have achieved victory with extreme efficiency and a minimum of wanton bloodshed (Angle 659). After Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, he was forced to battle a split cabinet because of campaign promises made to various Republican factions, which made it almost mandatory for certain individuals to be appointed to cabinet posts. He ruled his cabinet with an iron hand, and often acted without cabinet consent or advice.
Although his opponents called his method of rule “dictatorial” and “unconstitutional,” it was the only effective way to get anything done (Simmons 142). In the beginning, Lincoln’s secretary of state, William H. Seward, clearly considered himself the President’s superior, and blandly offered to assume the executive responsibility. He entered the cabinet with the thought of becoming the power behind the Presidential chair and openly opposed Lincoln’s control of the Union. This made Lincoln’s position as Chief of State exceedingly difficult and hindered his communication and control of the military.
As time passed, however, Seward recognized Lincoln’s capabilities and gave him complete loyalty (Simmons 174). This could not be said of Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s first secretary of the treasury. Blinded by an inflated ego, Chase pursued his own presidential aspirations. He was in constant conflict with Seward, and in general opposition to Lincoln, particularly over the issue of slavery.
Chase has been described as “jealous of the President,” and “overly ambitious.” Lincoln’s personal secretary, John Nicolay, wrote, “There is enough in Chase’s letters abusing Lincoln behind his back for quite a scorcher.” He grew so furious with the President’s capable rule that he finally resigned his position (Williams 202). Another weak link in Lincoln’s cabinet was his first secretary of war, Simon Cameron. He was considered an honest politician, being that he “would stay bought when he was bought.” His reputation as a swindler caused dissent among the cabinet, and he permitted so much inefficiency and corruption in his department that Lincoln welcomed an excuse to relieve him of his post (Angle, 660). Cameron’s successor, Edwin M. Stanton was a man who shared Seward’s initial opinion of the President, but who made an excellent secretary of war.
Prior to his appointment, Stanton had strongly criticized Lincoln, and mistrusted his motives. In fact, he was later accused of masterminding the plot to assassinate Lincoln. Although no proof was found to substantiate the charge, many historians today lend credence to the accusation. Stanton’s rudeness and intolerance made him many enemies in the cabinet, and one of his most bitter foes was Gideon Welles, secretary of the navy. This lead to many heated debates within the cabinet which obstructed the efficiency of the organization (Simmons 181).
Welles’ performance as a member of the cabinet was unmatched by any of the others, but he was frequently squabbling fiercely with Stanton. Welles opposed Stanton’s every move and therefore, strategic progress was slow (Williams, 212). And thus, in the face of staggering odds, and playing with a deck stacked against him, Lincoln emerges gloriously triumphant. His good acts have been magnified and his opposition overlooked in the passage of time. Even so, Lincoln, against all odds, looms as the greatest of Presidents.
Works Cited Angle, Todd. “Abraham Lincoln.” Collier’s Encyclopedia. 1986. Simmons, Henry E. A Concise Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: The Fairfax Press, 1986.
Williams, T. Harry. Lincoln and His Generals. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1952.